Human Resource Excellence – An Assessment of Strategies and Trends

Authors:  Edward E Lawler III & John W Boudreau

Review by: Perry Timms

I’m a big fan of John Boudreau and his work from the University of Southern California around HRM.  I’ve also seen Edward Lawler’s work referenced time and again. So when given the chance to review a joint piece of work on (as the book references) As assessment of Strategies and Trends then it’s too good to miss that wisdom.  Especially as this was evidenced based – a big plus and “trend” in HR (and rightly so).

So when the book arrives it’s larger than your average book and looks like an academic report – and overall, as a summary, this is an academic report.  If you have an aversion to such things, don’t be put off – this is also very practitioner led and full of insight about the real world and not just overly theoretical musings.

It opens in a good way: What HR needs to do.  We all have that in our minds of course.

I’d say this is predictable and rational (technological advancement; shifting ways of working and expectations; challenging circumstances and adaptive models of business). The narrative isn’t cliched, and avoids throw-away terms.  It stays clear of saying “VUCA” and disruption but it doesn’t avoid referencing the things that sit behind such terms.  So it keeps readers attention this way but still gives things like this their due prominence.  We may not like those terms but this book by proven academic, in-touch leaders in the industry, clearly see those factors at play.  Deny the terms if you wish, but don’t deny the impacts and clearly felt forces of change and uncertainty.

The one thing that does crop up a lot early on in the book is the phrase Human Capital.  I get why we use this term but it still jars with me as a phrase that is an overly mechanistic and commoditised way of describing human beings, people, us.

Still,I can see beyond that. And like I say, I get the context that we use that term in: the intangible and tangible value that people create in work for their employer/business.

Chapter 1 also instantly gives us the sense of the authors holistic view of HR.

  1. Human Resource Management – that function/discipline;
  2. HR Business Partner – the overall concept of being part of and in service to – a business; and
  3. Strategic Contributor.

Boudreau and Lawler clearly see the value and potential for more of this (Strategic Contributor) so give this prominence, clarity and more than a little direction through this book.

From this chapter, you can tell this book IS going to be academic.  The research is presented in tabular form; with sometimes difficult to rationalise statistical “tendency” reporting (intend to do something; or have a tendency to do/want to do something).  That aside this is the first sense that this book is as accurate an assessment of the impact of, opportunities for and deficiencies in, the HR profession writ large.  For this it gets a big thumbs up from me.

When (and we’re still in Chapter 1 don’t forget) we have efficiency; effectiveness; impact  as three first ports of call, then we know that the focus is in the right places for a profession keen to prove its value and in need of more influence.

A macro-level start shows us the status of many of the businesses reported by the participants in this research.  Surprisingly, there is an indication on the number of organisations who report themselves as either traditional; involving and even agile.  And Agile comes out top.  Whether this is a delusion or aspiration, clearly many people are – and believe they are – more agile in their construct. This is very useful insight from a survey of practitioners and industry leaders.

We are introduced to some interesting (potentially new to many) concepts like HR Decision Science. Chapter 4 covers this with some revealing and complex analysis of how the profession is only moderately effective in influencing key business decisions.  Much more work needed here and the push on data, machine learning and analytics is going to help this cause.

For those of you (like me) obsessed by Organisation Design this gets a whole section.  It shows we spend too much of our time on “HR Stuff” and not enough on organisational wide “stuff” where we could have more impact and influence.  Chapter 3 covers this further in strategic influence of HR and rates our efforts here as “reasonable”.  We have more input than before but still aren’t influential enough.

Measures of efficiency and effectiveness are covered in Chapters 6 and 9 respectively and (once you’ve got your head around the tabularised data and continent-context) provides useful stimulation for a health check of your own in these areas.  Chapter 8’s take on IT proves there’s still a lot of work to do in this area but it’s improving and moving in the right direction – albeit a little slowly compared to the world.

And then the all important closing chapter 13 What the Future of HR Should Be. I won’t spoil the book if you choose to buy it, but it would be wrong of me to not bring out some key conclusions and advice here:

  • Predicted changes have not yet materialised. Not because of flawed prediction but of pace of the profession’s adoption and adaptation.
  • A business who focuses on developing competencies, capabilities and knowledge is a place where HR is more impactful and influential.
  • HR has the chance to be COO of Organisational Culture (CEOs appear to want this);
  • HR as a leader of a culture of innovation;
  • Defining the new workforce is much needed (to reflect emerging work styles and exponential technology impacts);
  • Bringing more science to organisational issues is more crucial; and
  • Digitally savvy HR is needed so using cloud, mobile, social and AI alongside people management and development

The biggest change advocated by Boudreau and Lawler is how HR manages its own talent and pipeline.  It’s clearly seen as deficient and backs up Peter Cheese’s oft-said “Cobbler’s Children” approach to how we upskill and enable ourselves for ourselves (but ultimately for maximum effect for our people and businesses).  Chapter 5 is stark reading on HR’s skills gaps.  So to help us focus the desired skills include:

  • Understanding and building business models;
  • Understand and deploy approaches that handle competitive business situations;
  • Understand more about 21st century organisation and work design;
  • Utilise the ever growing range of staffing, compensation and talent models;
  • Educate and develop business leaders to be more humanly
  • Identify pivot points that help businesses make the right decisions based on financial, product and human capital combined (and not just the first two).

So I got pretty inspired by the final section and that is worthy of this piece of work alone.

I’d recommend this easy to overlook book (it’s not a story book of thought leadership with an alluring cover and title) and it validates my belief in Boudreau and Lawler’s work as every bit as important as Ulrich, Gratton, Chamorro-Premuzic, Bersin, Charan, McGrath, Ibarra and others.

Perry Timms, Founder and Chief Energy Officer, PTHR

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